We visited Teeling Distillery recently to see how it’s attempting to make Irish whiskey that’s different from what you have experienced before. Here’s what we learned.
The Teeling distillery can be traced back in some form to 1782, but history wasn’t on the agenda when brand ambassador Robert Caldwell was hosting a tour of the distillery recently. He says any brand can tell the story of Ireland’s distillation heritage or its soaring revival. The liquid is the focus here, and there’s an ambition to make people reconsider what they know about Irish whiskey, in particular, that it’s all a derivative of or indistinguishable from Jameson.
“It was for years, and it was hugely successful and saved Irish whiskey, but it also ended up defining Irish whiskey. We have blends but also single malts, the underutilised single grain, peated whisky, and single pot still, with a huge cask variety and our own personality,” Caldwell says.
The Dublin-based distillery, which was officially opened in 2015 by brothers Jack and Stephen Teeling three years after the brand was founded, is trying to do it all. There’s a focus on everything that happens pre-maturation, with a detailed and distinctive production process, as well as a plethora of cask types in its wood programme. Its Dublin distillate is progressing all the time, but there are plenty of expressions featuring sourced stock. To dig through all the detail and understand how Teeling plans to challenge the norms for Irish whiskey, we have to start at the beginning.
Freedom and flexibility
The distillery is operating with a three-tonne mash, and is distilling seven days a week, making about half a million litres of pure alcohol per annum. The malt and grain arrive from Irish farmers, with single malt (100% barley) and pot still spirit (a straight 50% malt and 50% unmalted split), grain and even some rye being produced. Some of the draft is sent to become cattle feed, while a portion becomes a syrup for use on the distillery’s bar. Teeling conforms to a lot of modern sustainable practices, such as its replanting of acres of oak in Wicklow.
The wet malt mill is the kind of tech to get a whisky nerd excited, as it’s a neat bit of innovation. It injects water while grinding the grain, ensuring no dust emanates into the atmosphere, making it safer than the typical milling process and allows the mill to sit on an open-plan distillery floor, which is great for tours. It also provides production flexibility as every grain has a different composition, even malted and unmalted barley, so adapting to each strain requires just a simple adjustment of input.
About a third of the production cycle is dedicated to running experiments, and flexibility is the name of the game in this production space. A two-stage fermentation takes place first in two 15,000-litre Oregon pine washbacks for two days, before being transferred into two 30,000-litre stainless steel washbacks for a minimum of five days, merging the best of old and new practice. Distillers yeast, great for yield, is paired with natural white wine yeast which creates more esters and flavour compounds. Work has begun on different yeast strains, the results of which we can expect to see in the future.
A fluid flavour DNA
Distillation takes place in three custom-built stills from Frilli Impianti in Monteriggioni. These are Alison (the 15,000-litre wash still), Natalie (the 10,000-litre feint still), and Rebecca (the 9,000-litre spirit still), named after Jack Teeling’s three daughters. The distillation starts in the wash still which converts the 8% ABV wash into 30% ABV low wines, which are then transferred to the feint still to produce strong feints at around 65% ABV before a final refining in the spirit still, which creates a new make between 80% and 88% ABV. The traditional tripe distillation is favoured predominately, but double distillation also takes place, for example in trials to preserve more of the smoky profile in a peated single malt. The shape of the pot stills is very flat, wide and with a conical shape at the bottom, a style that’s both a bit of a throwback to the glory days of Dublin whiskey production and one that produces a full-bodied spirit as it’s not being hit with relentless copper contact.
There’s a maturation showroom on the tour to show people the variety and styles of casks Teeling uses, although the actual ageing takes place about an hour north in a small town called Greenore. The casks are positioned upright on pallets in the warehouses where the maritime climate, cool summers and mild winters create conditions ideal for steady, characterful maturation. Teeling is taking full advantage of the cask freedom Ireland has, with its Wonders of Wood series alone featuring wood types such as mizunara, chestnut, cherry wood, acacia, and amburana. The latter is a Brazilian hardwood that Caldwell was pleasantly surprised to see be chosen as the favourite over a series of tastings during the lockdown(s), and he says it tastes like liquid carrot cake. It does.
Some distilleries very much trade on the idea that they have a defined distillery profile, but not here. “Our flavour DNA is fluid. We’re not trading on an ancient recipe. You can taste a range of our whiskies blind and be amazed that they all come from the same place,” says Caldwell. “For the most part Irish whiskey is characterised as approachable and fruit-forward. We can hit that mark, but also have the capacity to make full-bodied, rich spirits that go against the norm”.
Taking stock of Teeling’s whisky
The ethos is driven by what he describes as a team of whisky nerds, where the founders and master distiller/blender Alex Chasko play with lots of creative freedom. “Alex is very passionate about his craft and comes from an American craft brewery background. He brings that level of experimentation to Irish whiskey,” Caldwell explains. “We have so much variation. One range will demonstrate the way the distillate reacts to different wine types, but then our pot still is all about showing off the first mashbill of its kind made in the capital for over 50 years. We’re excited by the rapid growth in the Irish whiskey category and finding new ways to surprise ourselves, and it really comes from all of us”
Take a look at the core range and you’ll see this approach vindicated. The Teeling Single Malt Irish Whiskey features no less than five wine-cask-finished-whiskeys including sherry, Port, Madeira, white Burgundy and Cabernet Sauvignon. In contrast, the Single Pot Still is all about its rather traditional Dublin mash bill. “We’re supremely excited to see people drinking this unique style,” Caldwell says. “We’re aware changes are coming to the legislation, but we were always just delighted to have a classification and there’s plenty of room to innovate within the current framework when it comes to fermentation and yeast strains etc.”
I get the impression that the Teeling single grain whiskey is a particular favourite of Caldwell, and he’s right to be proud. There aren’t many elite Irish single grain whiskies out there, but Teeling’s is sweet and fairly light but full of flavour, which is elevated by clever use of Californian Cabernet Sauvignon casks. The Small Batch Irish whiskey shows blends aren’t forgotten here too, with malt and grain whiskeys, initially aged in ex-bourbon barrels and then casks that had previously held Central American rum, making this expression both ridiculously moreish and pretty singular in style. We’ve already had a good chat about Teeling Blackpitts Peated Single Malt before, so here we’ll just point out that it, like the rest of the core range, is bottled at 46% ABV without chill-filtration, a neat reminder of what comes first here: flavour.
A different kind of Irish whiskey?
Teeling also has a large number of limited-edition expressions and boasts a wealth of well-aged whiskies, some over 30-years-old, a rarity for Irish whiskey. It’s always had unbelievable access to stock, as the Teeling brothers had the advantage that their father is a veteran of the business. He founded the now Beam Suntory-owned Cooley Distillery in the 1980s, while he has been operating the Great Northern Distillery since 2015, a serial supplier of whiskey to much of the country’s newcomers today.
The duo, who learned their craft at Cooley, will be aware that this has been greeted by some raised eyebrows; the kind of scepticism anyone gets when it bottles whiskey it didn’t produce but has the distillery name on the label. There is more stock of Dublin-distilled whiskey in its warehouses than Teeling ever had of sourced whiskey, however, and the core range is now made-up of whiskey solely from there (an updated bottle design makes reference to this). Deep roots and a family anchor aren’t exactly a disadvantage either, as anyone who’s ever been on the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky will know. Access and expertise are one thing, not being part of a larger brand and having the chance to control your own destiny is another.
There’s a sense walking around this distillery that Teeling is a brand really hitting its stride as it celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Getting a foothold in the industry pre-boom certainly gave it a head start on a lot of other Irish whiskey distilleries, and it has not shied away from making expressions. In fact, you could argue there’s been too many to keep up with. Caldwell jokes if they progressed at a slower pace they would have NPD (new product development) until 2080. But then it’s all in the pursuit of making something different. There’s been plenty of swings, and few misses. This is whiskey that is Irish in nature, but across its wide portfolio, you’ll find something you love that’s unlike what you have experienced before in Irish whiskey.
Teeling was the first new whiskey distillery to have opened in Dublin in over 125 years when it popped up in the heart of The Liberties, once an epicentre of Irish whiskey production, close to the original 18th-century site. It’s a tourist destination that pre-pandemic was pulling in 100,000 visitors a year. There were plenty there when I visited. But there wasn’t much talk about history. Why bother when you could be making it?